Salman Rushdie talks about a history professor at Oxford who told him, “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.” That’s as true – if not more true – for fiction. I abandoned a novel ms not too long ago because, though I could see the character the novel was to be about, and the place it was to be set, I never did hear her. And the novel wasn’t write-able without the sound of her voice.
The sound of the characters’ speech should be inevitable: exactly right. So should the setting, the created world of the fiction. This doesn’t require pages of exposition – which is deadly. It requires well chosen, specific details. Mary Costello’s first short story collection, The China Factory, is full of these – the kind of details that illuminate place, character, relationship in a very few strokes. Her writing is clean and spare and very good.
Costello has a consistent voice in these stories, published in a handsome paperbound edition by The Stinging Fly Press of Dublin. They’re stories, in a way, about adjectives: regret, bitterness, infatuation, love. They are about the failure to act heroically or, sometimes, kindly; the intrusive inevitability of humanness.
The title story, “The China Factory,” is told in first person by a 17 year old girl about the summer she worked in a china factory, a place where “day trippers and coach loads of Americans arrived each day and traipsed through the showrooms in search of dinner services and cake stands and wall plates.” The listing quality – those repeated “ands” gives the sentence a tedium and a heaviness that reflects the action – the sameness of the day trippers and coaches, day after day after day – and reinforces it.
The narrator isn’t like the other girls she works with, who are factory lifers, or Gus, the man from her village who drives her to and from the factory where he also works. She pretends to be like the factory girls, but she’s not. She’s young and headed to college and not sure, as the other factory girls were, of “the arc my life would take.”
Gus is treated almost as a pack mule at the factory, and the other girls make fun of him for his muteness and the way his work clothes smell. He avoids speaking to the narrator during the work day and much later, she comes to see “that he was sparing me, that he understood how our association would contaminate me in the eyes of others.”
She is too young, the summer the story takes place, to appreciate Gus’s true goodness, although, unlike the other girls, she does see it. Later, when it’s too late to make amends, she is full of regret: “The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or my mother setting down her china cups, or even King Kong, all call Gus to mind. Or the word meek.”
With only two exceptions, these stories are told in first person or like “You Fill Up My Senses,” in omniscient third. This is the story of a young girl who works hard to see the world, her family, as perfect which she is, ultimately, unable to do.
The beginning of the story reminds me of the beginning of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in how quickly and fully Costello is able to give us the picture of this family’s daily life.
“She loves when she is alone with her mother in the car, like this. They are driving to check on the cattle and sheep in the summer grazing seven miles away. They stop at Burke’s for petrol and buy loose pineapple cubes and cigarettes. Her mother smokes two cigarettes very quickly as if she’ll be caught.” Each sentence adds to the picture and becomes indelible.
Costello gets the sound of speech right too. “God Almighty, will you ever stop! Will you? Will you ever just leave me alone?” the mother says at the end of the story, when this voice changes everything.
The connecting thread in these stories is the decline of hope – or hopefulness. “The cloying nature of domesticity” intrudes and replaces hope, love, expectation with bitterness and endurance and getting by. None of these are “happy” stories, but they are rich and consistently full of clean, pure sentences and accurate, vivid detail: they resonate and linger.
The consistency in these stories – of voice, subject and sensibility – can sometimes feel like sameness. Too many characters, male and female, have the same kind of interiority – they wonder odd things in the same way: “How long,” wonders the husband in “Sleeping With a Stranger,” “before the ache of a ewe disappears?” Romy, in “Room In Her Head” sees “the tiny figures of sheep grazing on slanted fields and imagines the sound of their faint plucking on the short grass.” This consistency can make it feel like we’re getting the writer’s perceptions, instead of the characters’.
The interiority can become overly minute, burdening the story. From “Insomniac” – “He remembers the dead horsefly on the windowsill of his study. He came upon it earlier, its legs in the air, its thin wafery wings lying flat… He thought he could smell its deadness, and the smell of warm dust that never leaves that room.” The description is beautiful, but it’s too heavy for a fleeting recollection. It weighs the story down.
Many of the twelve stories here also have a summing up paragraph towards the end that tells the reader what the main character is feeling or deciding. Sometimes these paragraphs are heartbreaking, “He had given Mona the whole of his life,” thinks the husband in “Sleeping With A Stranger.” “The days, the hours, the quotidian. Every single day but one.” It’s a wonderful sentence, balanced, rhythmic and devastating. At other times, the summing up draws conclusions it should be the readers’ prerogative to draw.
But the flaws are small, counterbalanced by the quiet beauty of stories Costello has worked hard to craft. It is clearly important to her that we see settings, hear how the characters speak. And because the details are so finely observed – “On Sundays, when they have Neopolitan ice cream for dessert” – they secure the credibility of the narrative voice. We believe them.
These are quiet stories, beautifully told. They are like what Costello says of a river: “The water was calm; the reeds made the river seem patient.”
The stories feel patient too, patiently made. They’re a pleasure to spend time with.